Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those plays so dense with ideas that you can easily see a dozen of them and get a different experience each time. Should Hamlet be young? He’s still at university, after all. Ah, but the gravedigger says of Yorick, “this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years”, and Hamlet remembers the jester from when he was a boy – so he must be almost thirty, at least?
That’s a prosaic question among many. Is Hamlet mad, feigning madness or something in between? Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever understand their role or deserve their fate? Was Claudius merely a greedy, self-indulgent opportunist or a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard who was out to rob Hamlets Senior and Junior of the kingship from the start? How implicated is Gertrude and does Ophelia have any agency at all, when her death is reduced to her brother and her boyfriend having a graveyard pissing contest over who loved her more, when nobody loved her enough to care about her opinions or fate when she was alive?
I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, on stage and screen, adapted and in Shakespeare’s original texts (and there are a couple of different versions of those). I’ve seen them edited down, done with the whole shebang, performed in modern dress, in period dress, in mixed costuming, though not yet nude. (Give it time, though, give it time.)
All is by way of saying that I have a lot of Hamlets under my belt, and this production at the Barbican, directed with confidence and a grand vision by Lyndsey Turner, was one of the very best I’ve ever seen.
The production itself closed on 31 October and will in a week or two come to cinema screens as part of the National Theatre Live program. If you don’t want spoilers about the production or my musings on the text (which may still be spoilerific for some – after all, everyone sees it for the first time some time) you might want to bookmark this for later.
First up is the astonishing set, which reveals itself in stages and then becomes a canvas for the set and lighting design to splash the fate of Denmark upon it. The first thing we see, actually, is Hamlet sitting on the floor in front of a dropped flat. He’s listening to Nature Boy on a record player, going through possessions in old tea chests and experience a small, private moment of loss. In that small moment we meet a grieving son. Soon after, that curtain rises and we are greeted with the vast hall of a royal mansion: two storeys high with a massive staircase, ballustrades, great doors and almost cavernous. You wonder how on earth that space can be filled.
It’s a sudden shift from the individual to the wider world, and of course the royal hall is more than just the palace of Elsinore – that space is Denmark, bounded in a nutshell and the director and her cast have no trouble filling it at all. In face, after the banquet scene, the back of it opens up so that it become still larger yet! And never once is there a sense that the actors are swimming in emptiness (unless, of course, that is the point of the scene). Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet makes particularly good use of this ‘little Denmark’ – his energy in racing from point to point is beautifully contrasted each time he stops and becomes a still centre for thought and introspection.
At key points, the lighting paints decay on the walls – the something rotten in the state of Denmark clearly something emanating from the palace.
And that something, it is eventually proven, is Claudius himself. I’ve enjoyed Ciaran Hinds’ work immensely in the past – he combines fantastic gravitas (he was Julius Caesar in the Rome series) with very human flaws. I’ve seen so many versions of Claudius where he is a bit on the soft side, an apparently affable man who let ambition overtake his duty and now he can’t believe his luck that he got a kingdom and a deliciously saucy wife to boot. When the truth is uncovered at last, this kind of Claudius makes desperate plans to protect himself.
Hinds’ Claudius is a planmaker, all right, but he’s no weaker younger brother who took an oppportunity and ran with it. This Claudius’s true colours are pretty much black to the bone – genuinely dangerous, genuinely threatening and, as a result, a brilliantly dark and, for me, refreshing take on a character I thought was familiar. At the end of the first half of the play, the palace explodes with black confetti, as though Claudius’s determination to ensure Hamlet is killed is the bursting of a particularly nasty foulness – and it infects the whole set. The second half is a scorched Elsinore, a blackened battlefield of a Denmark, ruined long before Fortinbras arrives. This is a Denmark deeply infected by corruption from the top, and when Hamlet returns, apparently relieved of his almost feverish madness, it’s only to find everyone else fretful with rage and their own kind of fevered wildness.
Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is also a treat. The character never has much agency and is pushed around or ignored by pretty much everyone, even after she dies. This Ophelia is nervy, sweet but socially awkward, looking at the world through the filter of her camera. Strangely, although she seems to keep an arm’s length away from people with that intervening camera, it also means that she sees more than others do, too. Her mad scene is played to convey that extremely well, and it is only then that Claudius really pays attention to her – when she says something that indicates she knows what he’s done. Soon after this, when Gertrude realises what Ophelia has buried in her delirium-fed funeral for her murdered father, Ophelia’s distress and her imminent fate hit chillingly hard.
Then, of course, there’s Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Given the hype surrounding his casting and the speed with which tickets sold out for the run, a year in advance, it was always going to be a challenge for him to live up to the expectations.
Fortunately, he not only lived up to them, but exceeded them. His Hamlet is complex and moving, from that first moment we see him as a grieving son to his last breath of a man finally embracing the ‘felicity’ of escaping what is to him an malevolent world. In between, he is melancholy, funny, sly, furious, bemused, child-like, unreasonable, wounded, heartbroken and enraged. He uses every inch of the stage when it’s right to use it, and commands stillness when stillness best tells Hamlet’s tale. He has an incredible physicality and grace – whether clambering all over the banquet table for a soliloquy or waltzing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he accuses them of playing him like a pipe. With Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Cumberbatch wrings every conflict and every contradiction out of the role, and delivers a superbly textured, engaging, comedic and deeply tragic prince.
For all I sing his praises, the fact is he is supported by a truly excellent cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) who really do feel like they’ve known him from childhood; Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who personifies being the opposite in every way of Hamlet as a son; and a Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) who seems happy to turn a blind eye as long as she still has a nice frock. Karl Johnson even does a marvellous job at being an opposite of himself as both the Ghost and the Gravedigger – as grim and disturbing in the former as he is wickedly funny in the latter.
I am so familiar with this play, but so much of this production felt fresh, its approach highlighting aspects of character and text in new ways.Benedict Cumberbatch is part of an ensemble of excellence, from the whole cast and the director to every backdrop, every soundscape, every costume and every line. Lyndsey Turner and her team should be rightly proud of themselves for bringing their grand vision to life in ways still so emotionally direct and personal.
This may not be the definitive Hamlet – with a play this layered, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing – but it is a consummate Hamlet and well worth the seeing. Which I’m going to do again, in the National Theatre Live screening next week.
See more about the Barbican’s Hamlet:
Read my review of Richard III starring Martin Freeman (2014)
My very great thanks to Wendy C Fries who bought tickets for this production for me in 2014, on the off-chance I’d make it back to London in 2015. You’re a champion!